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Breaking Down Dress Codes

From “Business Formal” to “Casual Fridays”—and everything in between

Cracking corporate dress codes can be tricky. From “business casual” to “casual Fridays” to the always vague “professional attire,” it can be tough to decide what’s a good fit all-around—what looks good, makes you feel good and sync with the company culture. Gone are the days of slipping on a suit Monday through Friday. And, unless you’re in a very casual workplace, assuming jeans are always appropriate is mega-risky.

In short, the lines between weekend and weekday wear are blurred, and that can make building your wardrobe—and, even, getting up and out in the morning—that much tougher. 

So what’s a smart, savvy, stylish professional to do? Consider these basic guidelines to workplace dressing—guidelines that will no doubt help you look, feel and be the part, no matter the culture of your 9-to-5.

Rule #1. Dress for the Company’s Environment
First and foremost, make sure your outfit is in-line with the general corporate vibe. If you’ve interviewed, think about what people were wearing around the office. If you haven’t been to the office yet, make the internet your best friend. Check out the company’s website and social media pages—chances are you’ll spot employees “in action” and can get a feel for how they’re styling themselves. 

Based on your research, follow suit. If people are generally more dressed up, match their level of polish. If, on the other hand, they’re a bit more relaxed, you can be, too. That said, it’s better to veer into the “more polished” zone, especially in the beginning. It’s better to dress a little more formal for the interview and, even, for those first few days versus coming off as too casual. 

It’s easy to tone it down if that’s the culture. But come across as too laid-back in the wrong workplace and you could miss the mark—and miss out on the offer. Even if the company seems informal (for example, a tech startup where most employees are in jeans and a t-shirt) it’s better to err on the side of caution.

Rule #2. Breaking Down the Business Formal vs. Business Casual Dress Codes 

Larger companies likely have employee handbooks or some other type of go-to guide that gives the basics—benefits, hours, holidays and even expectations surrounding dress. Even then, though, pulling together the right daily look can be a challenge. “Business formal,” for example, can mean different things to different companies—to different people, even. Same for “business casual.” If you’re reading up and stumble across those directives, consider this:

Business formal truly means business. Commonly found in industries like finance, law and other super-corporate environments, formal business attire is conventional and fairly consistent—but that doesn’t mean you can’t add your own pop of personality...within reason. 

If you’re heading to an environment that dictates business formal, stick with these basic getting-ready parameters:

Business Formal Dress Code 


Sleek, tailored pants (pants should not have slits or flare), dresses or skirt suits 

Collared blouses/shirts, and slacks or blazers


Skirt and dress length should be no higher than three inches above the knee


Neutral colors (like black, navy, gray, cream, or white)


Conservative, closed-toe heels three inches and under or flats


Simple, traditional accessories like a small necklace, classic watch or pearl earrings

Business Casual Dress Code 

On the other hand, business casual is much more lenient—allowing for prints a color to pair with suit separates—but that, too, can leave questions about what’s work-appropriate and what’s not.

For most employers, the goal of business casual attire is to project a more relaxed, informal attitude while still maintaining professionalism. 


Cardigans, blouses, sweaters and blazers 

Tailored pants, dresses and skirts

Jeans, in some settings—aim for darker colors and fits that feel more formal


Skirt and dress length should be no higher than three inches above the knee


Bring on the colors and patterns—though black and traditional neutrals are always welcome and, likely, very common 


Closed--toe heels, flats, boots and booties


Simple, traditional accessories 

Statement jewelry and accessories 

Scarves and colorful belts 

Some companies throw in a third dress code—“business professional”—that falls somewhere in between. If that’s your company code, consider the mandate a bit more chill than business formal. There’s some leeway here to showcase more of your personality with statement jewelry, more vibrant colors, and slightly bolder styles, but it’s still a pretty buttoned-up workplace. Dress accordingly.

Rule #3: Don’t Go TOO Casual on “Casual Friday”
This is a big one. Casual Fridays are very common, even in corporate workplaces. A good rule of thumb? Step down one level of dress. So, for example, if your office is business formal, opt for business professional on Fridays—a little more flair or a little more color or a fun accessory. Business casual? Yes, you can wear your favorite non-ripped boyfriend jeans, provided the rest of your look feels deliberate and pulled-together. 

That said, even if your office is super casual, certain things are no-gos—flip-flops, ripped jeans, sheer tops or anything club-level low-cut. Keep those at home period. 

Ultimately, you want to feel comfortable and confident, while still falling in-line with your company’s dress code. Take note of your surroundings, take note of what your colleagues above you are wearing and, when it doubt (or when you’re new), err on the side of caution. Soon enough you’ll find your groove—and then you can focus on building out the perfect wardrobe for your workplace.

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